Where are all the fat people in today's mainstream body positivity movement?
I’ll admit it, some of my interests are totally basic. I love internet quizzes, cat videos, and listicles. I especially love when those listicles try to sell me something because shopping is my jam. Whenever I open a listicle promising dresses with pockets or inexpensive date night looks, I immediately click every product link with one thing in mind: Will they carry anything in my size?
Any girl who is plus-size like me knows this struggle. One burden that accompanies having a larger body is that simple tasks like clothing ourselves can be really difficult. You’d think that the fashion industry would see the need and fill it. Instead, they either don’t carry plus sizes, don’t design those sizes with actual large bodies in mind, or offer few subpar, expensive options.
Even companies like Aerie—which asserts body positivity in its campaigns and refuses to airbrush its images—still fail their plus-size customers by not carrying anything larger than an XXL. If you’re a larger person, good luck looking somewhere else instead. Non-inclusive sizing is an issue as old as the modern fashion industry itself, but it’s not the only critique of marketable body positivity that we need.
When it comes to body positivity—especially for fat women—it’s about allowing us to advocate for ourselves.
(Before continuing, it’s important to note that body positivity covers subjects beyond weight—including disability, race, ethnicity, and gender presentation. I’m especially impacted by the weight component, so that’s the one I feel most comfortable speaking on.)
As an eating disorder survivor who lives with a disability, The Good Place star Jameela Jamil has become a supportive advocate in the body positivity movement. Besides being adamantly against diet culture, she has gone on record saying that her 2019 goal is to be more inclusive of others in the movement. In a recent Elle interview, she stated, “I create space for other women. I create space for people from minorities, and people who are living in experiences that I have not myself had to live through.”
Jamil also recently turned down a role for a deaf character because she believed it should go to a deaf actress, so it seems that she attempts to walk her talk. She has become perhaps the most visible face of the body positivity movement in recent memory.
But, unfortunately, this means that fat activists in the movement who bring firsthand knowledge of thin privilege and fatphobia are overshadowed.
Since Jamil has expressed a desire to bring other voices into the narrative and take up less space—she calls herself a “feminist in progress” for that reason—a great way for her to start would be learning from her past mistakes—and the rest of the mainstream body positivity moment should take note.
For the most part, the body positivity movement is not very inclusive of fat people, Black people, people of color, or members of the LBGTQ community—despite Black women having done the work to create it. Marginalized members of the movement should be granted their rightful platform and recognition, and this is one area where Jamil has faced backlash.
In 2018, activist Stephanie Yeboah, a Black woman, spoke out about an instance where Jamil took her words from a private conversation about body positivity and presented them as her own during an interview, which is erasing the work of fat Black women. When confronted about it by Yeboah, Jamil allegedly denied the situation and called the activist a racist before deleting the tweet in which she criticized Yeboah.
Back in 2015, while promoting her clothing line, the actress explained her distaste for the term “plus-size” in an interview with Femail. She said, “The concept of plus-size is so derogatory and weird. What does that mean? Plus the normal size? It shouldn’t exist any more.” Jamil is free to her opinion, and her intended point was probably that all women—regardless of size—are worthy of the same respect. However, as a thin woman, it’s not her place to decide how fat women identify. Marginalized groups need to claim our own labels, even if they are labels that those outside of our community don’t understand.
As far as inclusion in the movement, Jamil’s latest body positive campaign with Aerie only confirmed how much is lacking from the movement as a whole.
Both Jamil and Aerie completely missed the mark when the campaign failed to include larger bodies. When asked by Twitter user @Curvesmart about the lack of plus-size models in their campaign, Jamil cited model Iskra Lawrence as their face of fuller women. While Lawrence is technically a plus-size model, the 5’9” young woman with a 30-inch waist is hardly the only representation that fat women need. If anything, she has more in common with straight-size women than those who identify as plus-size. The fact that neither the Aerie campaign nor Jamil immediately recognized this problem shows just how out of touch the movement is with fat audiences.
The fat community has many identities that make up the complete picture of who we are. Within this community, there are so many fat advocates who can better relate to the traumas and trials of life in a fat body. That’s not to say we don’t need straight-size allies like Jamil, because we definitely do. She has room to grow, but she brings the perspective of a woman of color who has survived an eating disorder and understands disability. But even if the intention is to pass the mic, it’s not as simple as public figures like Jamil may assume. People who are often overlooked or scorned by society will still be passed over in a movement for more conventional representation.
Advocates who usually get the biggest and best platforms often conventionally fit into societal norms. Fat people are still not considered to be part of that norm.
Fat people are conditioned to not take up space. We are socialized to play the tropes of the merry fat person at best and the food-crazed glutton at worst. Being able to stand up for ourselves and talk—and actually be heard!—is a far more powerful tool to reach those in our community who we hope to help.
Personally speaking, if I hear body positivity coming from a thin person, my first thought is, “It’s easy to be positive when society tells you that you’ve got value.”
It doesn’t matter how much I like the person; it doesn’t matter how much I respect them. I understand that negative body image exists in thin people, especially women, as well—but they will never know the same pain of being told that you’re less than just because you weigh more. As is the case with so many marginalized groups, only a fat person can look at another fat person and understand the struggle.
It’s helpful when someone like Jamil brings more media attention to body positivity, but we then need to respond by celebrating and promoting the work of fat activists. If you’re interested in uplifting fat voices, follow activists like Your Fat Friend, Clarkisha Kent, Jessica Torres, and Kivan Bay on Twitter. They are just a few members of the fat community who discuss fatness in terms of feminism, disability, and race. So often these factors intersect, and that’s why it’s important to understand the communities who experience all of them.
Fat people merely want to feel seen, heard, and represented. If our values and knowledge are reflected in the body positivity movement, everyone will be all the better for it. Fat people have always struggled to find acceptance in movements, but we shouldn’t have that problem within one that we created.